Frank Bowling at Tate Britain: Provincialism, Transnationalism, and the Atlantic Divide

Frank Bowling, Great Thames IV, 1988-89. Acrylic paint on canvas, 181 x 321 cm. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London. © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.

 

Frank Bowling at Tate Britain: Provincialism, Transnationalism, and the Atlantic Divide1 

I want to thank the organizers of today’s symposium for the invitation to speak, and to begin by congratulating (in his absence) Frank Bowling on the occasion of his current major retrospective here at Tate. I want also to commend Tate Britain, Elena Crippa and the team, on the exhibition. I let out a cry of delight when Rose Jones first told me about plans for it.

In the next few minutes, I want to reflect upon what may be unique and especially successful about this exhibition, against a more mixed record of success across a history of exhibitions and public and critical reception. Not wishing to dull our mood of celebration, I would say that there has been an uneven show of recognition, if not at times actual purposeful neglect of the art and the person of Frank Bowling. Importantly, there is much that can be learned from this, both for anyone wishing to better understand this particular artist, but also, no less significantly, in the more general sense. We can learn more, I think, about art historical, curatorial and critical approaches to the presentation, remembrance and appreciation for art and artists like Bowling that straddle what might be called “the Atlantic divide.”

Indeed, Bowling’s multiple migrations across the Atlantic, between Britain and the United States, and the matter of his birth and upbringing in what was then British Guiana, show the need for a purposefully transnational account of modernism and a debate about what counts as “provincial.” In my book Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean,2 I have devoted a chapter to scrutinizing Frank Bowling’s presentation and his reception as an artist during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he studied at the Royal College of Art in London alongside the soon-to-be canonized figures of British Pop art David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, Derek Boshier, and Peter Blake. Bowling and his work met with imputations of being provincial—authorities such as art critics were unable to accept that a serious contributor to artistic modernism could hail from the Caribbean—and he experienced racism and nationalistic attitudes that were intensifying here with the breakup of the British Empire.

Frank Bowling, 2017. © Alastair Levy.

In that respect his situation was shared by many other artists active in Britain who had migrated from its colonies or former colonies around the world. What seriously complicated his particular situation, however, is that the celebrated Pop artists would also try to cultivate an image of themselves as provincials. For these canonical artists, to be self-positioned slightly behind the United States, to be set apart from its latest developments, was to be suitably if not favorably distanced from the “leading” example of modernism centered in New York.

Bowling’s presence in Britain is revealing of the expanded transatlantic picture of modern art, and more specifically, why claims for provincialism, backwardness, and belatedness were used to valorize some of the artists of Pop and yet not others with whom they were contemporary. Bowling—in London from 1953 and a participant in Pop during his years of study and work in London—was never described as occupying a self-aware or critical or fashionable “outsiderness,” since that same status had already been taken (one may even say usurped) by the more canonical artists of British Pop. And this is why I have counseled caution before protesting Bowling’s exclusion, since being marginal or displaced from US-centered modernism was the very leitmotif of the mainstream British post-war art scene.

Let me look briefly at how that came about, in my view, which will involve familiarizing us a little more with Bowling’s biography, before we think more directly about the matter of the “Atlantic divide” and of Bowling and his art in America.

Bowling entered the RCA in 1959 and immediately gained recognition by winning a life drawing prize in his first-year examination. As he told me, “That’s what I was doing all the time, I guess. And it was very amusing, because Kitaj, who wasn’t very good at drawing, had to borrow some of Hockney’s drawings to pass. It was really quite funny.”3 Time at the RCA for Bowling began rather well until September 1960, when he was forced to leave  (Bowling had found a partner Paddy Kitchen, the College registrar, despite a constitutional ban on marriages between students and staff), continuing his studies for a term at the Slade School of Art. Upon being invited back to the RCA in 1961, however, Bowling found that he was not included in the Young Contemporaries show of that year—a major vehicle for elevating the Pop artists at a crucial point of their emergence and, later, a common touchstone in the Pop canon. The pattern of finding himself in a secondary role would continue: Bowling went on to graduate in 1962, winning a silver medal for painting, while Hockney famously took the gold.4

Bowling’s estrangement from Pop was not simply the result of him missing a year at the RCA. Time at the Slade had brought Bowling into contact with a wider range of artists with whom he assembled to form the Young Commonwealth Artists Group. In one of the several, extended interviews that I did with him in 2006, Bowling recalled the conditions under which it formed:

It was made up of guys from places like Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Jamaica, Canada, Singapore, India, South  Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and a couple of very good sculptors from the southern part of Rhodesia. A lot of guys from the Indian subcontinent were at the Slade, there were oodles of them there, but none at the Royal College—people like Shemza. The reason this came about, it was obviously a student gathering, is that it was felt that the people from the Commonwealth were being edged out by the English provincial lot: people from Yorkshire, and Manchester, really heavy duty guys from up North, and the Welsh.5

Bowling was describing a division between the Young Contemporaries of Pop and the Young Commonwealth Artists. Drawn from the imperial world, the divisions among these artists structured their relation to Britain and shaped how its art was imagined. It is obvious that the appreciated provincialism, so synonymous with the acclaimed artists of Pop, clashed with the lesser-valued provincial identities of these artists from a wider global geography. Of course what each grouping had failed to see was their shared grounds or joint condition of provincialism:6 how they were implicated in this country’s confusion and ambivalence toward the end of Empire—not least, the labor demands that encouraged immigration in a society that largely resented the immigrant. And the examples of a new sort of imperialism and a new empire were everywhere visible in the hegemonic forms of Americocentrism: its political dominance during an enviable boom era seeming at the same time to dissolve a high-low culture divide in the cultural field, the signs of its prosperity circulating outward in an international overflow. Here was a complex cultural formation wherein postwar art in Britain came to be poised between archaism and a sense of being suitably behind America’s cultural “lead,” commodifying heritage and Britishness in a way that put a premium on a racialized, recharged, and nativized notion of belonging and place. What resulted locally, in the face of transatlantic geopolitical change, was an uneven, unstabilizing, conflicted, and exclusionary relationship to the community and the category of contemporary art. An attractive version of provincialism was found and flaunted by a privileged few.

Frank Bowling, Mirror, 1966. Oil paint on canvas, 310 x 216.8 cm. Tate, presented by the artist, Rachel Scott,and their 4 children:  Benjamin and Sacha Bowling, Marcia and Iona Scott 2013. © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.

From 1964 until its completion in 1966, Bowling labored on a large painting entitled Mirror, which helps still today to illuminate the British art landscape and, as I will show in a moment, enables the mapping of art on a more transatlantic and transnational scale. The main subject of the painting is a spiraling staircase that is modeled on one at the RCA. It serves as the pivot or vortex of an art-creating machine, implicating Bowling’s London contemporaries—figures who had become fully institutionalized by the time he painted the piece. The painting conjures Richard Hamilton’s recurrent pastiches of modern design and contains depictions of English painters; the space recalls the landscapes of David Hockney. At the foot of the stairs is Bowling himself, centrally placed and swathed in light. It is a stained and unfinished portrait and a conclusive mark of self-erasure. Taking a step, he is also readying to leave the pictured scene.

As well he did, virtually upon finishing the painting, by moving to New York. Once there, he painted Mother’s House (1967) and, soon after, Bartica Born II (1969), works that declared lines of connection with the newly independent state of Guyana, and of his childhood memories there. These were executed in a manner that combined cheap printing techniques with painting, directly referring to the mixed-media mainstay of Pop yet extending to open identification with his birthplace among the gingerbread jalousie windows and whitewashed wooden lanes of Bartica, a small river depot on the Essequibo. Familial associations with Bartica and the town where Bowling grew up, New Amsterdam, are elaborated by the repeating transfer of an image of the Bowling family home onto canvas, a detail first used in Cover Girl (1964) and a work on paper, Beware of the Dog (1966). A more hidden reference hinges on associations with Bartica in particular as a place of political history. The town has special significance as the nearest settlement to the seventeenth-century Dutch fortress Kyk-over-al (literally, “see over all” or “lookout”), now a ruin on a tiny uninhabited island at the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni rivers. Through this metaphor of an empowered, non-Anglophone vision, Kyk-over-al has long figured prominently in Guyanese artistic and literary culture (it was adopted as the name for a long-running periodical, for instance), connoting a mode of visual knowledge able to shift between linguistic registers and traverse contested terrain.

Frank Bowling, Mother’s House with Beware of the Dog, 1966. Acrylic paint and silkscreened ink on canvas, 145 x 121 cm. Private collection, UK.

In his figurative works, Bowling extended the symbolic value of being in America by concentrating his energies on exposing the cultural significance of decolonization. The printed and painted reminders of Frank Bowling’s birthplace in Bartica and Kyk-over-al call to view a historical micro-organism of imperial incursions and tradeoffs whose twentieth-century fallout was increasingly felt during the decades of the 1950s and ’60s. The artworks he began to make in America suggest themes of self-determination, unity, and uplift, resonating both with the building of a new nation in Guyana as it gained independence in 1966 and with the new sense of transnational community through the arts that Bowling then experienced as an individual of the African diaspora (more accurately speaking, the Caribbean diaspora) among African American contemporaries.

In a sense these works of art materialize what was at stake—a psychic journey, a further migratory step—in Bowling’s re-crossing of the Atlantic to the United States, as he put cultural distance between a narrow, racializing idea of British national identity, and the sort of preciously reclaimed provincialism that had seemed to be so much the preserve of the British art scene.

Facing up to the United States

The curatorial presentation of Frank Bowling in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern in 2017 did well to broach these issues, with a monumental survey that commenced with the year 1963 and traced twenty years’ worth of art by black American artists as well as by Bowling. Indeed, the exhibition made much of Bowling’s abstract work, in particular those pieces that were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1971 exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America—works that bear the qualities of a “Black Abstraction,” according to the curator Mark Godfrey—and showed how the artist’s writings took part in a debate on the role and responsibility of black artists. For me, the general message about Bowling in Soul of a Nation was that his abstract canvases can help to make sense of American painting in the late 1960s to early ’70s.

 

Installation view, Frank Bowling at Tate Britain (May 31 – August 26, 2019). Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood.

That said, the terms of Frank Bowling’s inclusion in this US story tend to be quite codified, especially when he is separated from his background of achievements in Britain prior to the transatlantic move. A justly acclaimed recent book, Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, provides a striking case-in-point. An important contribution to the continued debates in the US about the complex legacies of Color Field painting and “Greenbergian modernism” more generally, 1971 gives Bowling historical center stage in many respects. Yet it does so without any reference that I can find to his Caribbean background or his British training and experience. It is obviously quite hard to strike the right balance. Soul of a Nation delivers on the latter but falls a bit short on the former. Godfrey chooses terms of comparison between Bowling and his American contemporaries that seem to qualify Bowling’s role by way of association with others yet quite subtly place him slightly behind. Works such as Middle Passage (1970) ostensibly carry “expectations that were more literally fulfilled by [Larry] Rivers’s works”7; Bowling’s “strategy relates to the works I have discussed by [Melvin] Edwards8 and [Joe] Overstreet …” [“in that a history of oppression is acknowledged while the work becomes a monument to the strength of those whose ancestors lived through the Middle Passage and survived”] 9; and Godfrey is at pains to clarify that works from among Bowling’s Map Painting series were included at the Whitney in 1971 in the same lobby gallery where Alvin Loving10 had shown in 1969 and Edwards in 1970.

For English, Bowling and his peers are participants in a kind of American politics of race, even though their choice of art practice is ostensibly not representational. English’s critical target is a set of paradigms for historicizing African American visual creativity disseminated by so many African American art historians (Kellie Jones, Richard J. Powell, etc). He is aiming for what he calls the “discomposure” of this group and what he views to be its black art historical orthodoxies. His dispute with the existing US art histories and their emphasis on representation—one might equally say: their uneasiness with abstraction—relies on a certain de-emphasis: on conveying the sense that Bowling is typical of this subset of black American contemporaries. Yet for precisely this reason, it seems, there is no inquiry into varieties of blackness that extend beyond America.

Would it be too compromising for English to permit his readers to notice the national differences within this formative moment—to register diversity, routes of migration, or transnational experience? Perhaps it would, as that would put into proper perspective his engagement with only a single national setting, possibly rendering provincial such contestations over a black American story of art. It would also unseat the centrality of English’s contrapuntal (post-black) story. Insofar as English’s version of history tends to suppress a wider transatlantic, entwined view of modernism, he has more in common with his opponents than he knows. Like the targets of its approbation, 1971 deals in a currency of blackness which, although capacious enough to include a Caribbean and black British subject such as Bowling, does not meaningfully analyze those aspects of Bowling’s formation. Ultimately, 1971 raises the question: Is Bowling included in the US art scene by “passing” as a black American, his migratory experience—linking both the Caribbean and Britain—then deemed an irrelevant, perhaps inconvenient, biographical truth?

I propose that we turn to this artist’s biography as a key to understanding the American scene and indeed for offsetting its historical centrality and the more general cleaving to the national in art historical narratives. Bowling’s more complex transnational experience offers clues to why he could contribute so valuably to the US art context in this period of the late 1960s and ’70s. He had seen its drama before, when the abstraction-figuration divide was challenged over the previous decade in the UK, where tutors and artists held onto figuration even as certain US artists moved away from it—only to find figuration reappearing in the US in a genre of protest. Thus, Bowling could voice his defense of modernism—by which he meant abstraction, an art with little or no representational element—without being in thrall to Greenberg. Commonwealth artists in the UK had been doing the same throughout the postwar period, in the face of conservative UK figurative work. Indeed, they found community that way (see, for example, the history of Denis Bowen’s New Vision Centre Gallery). The current US debate is myopic in this regard, with little interest in how artists of color in the UK had explored the same debates throughout the 1950s and ’60s, during a period dominated by attempts either to wrest the figurative and the abstract apart, or else wrangle them together.

 

Installation view, Frank Bowling at Tate Britain (May 31 – August 26, 2019). Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood

In an important sense, there is a kind of Americocentrism here, a blindness to Bowling’s Caribbean and British backgrounds, which misrecognizes his transnational identity as a normatively black American one—and therefore fails to account for the ways in which Bowling had transgressed the figuration-abstraction divide well before his American career.  Acknowledging this might lead us to reverse some of the dominant modes of chronology that have placed the US at a historical vanguard in this regard. Many of Bowling’s London-made pieces (such as the 1964 Cover Girl), could be cast as forerunners of far better known, much later 1960s works by Barkley L. Hendricks, including Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale) (1969).11 Each work brings different effects. I am not sure that the Hendricks shares much with Bowling’s reflections on fashion photography and the black body, especially on the ways in which imaging in the commercial field can forestall the resistive purpose of picturing blackness. While each painting employs a superimposed body, cast in a mode of “self-assured individualism,” as Zoe Whitley claims of the Hendricks,12 the Bowling, with its two-fold female presence—a standing figure interrupting the picture plane, and a print of his mother’s house—is far differently gendered than the iconic Black Panther male activist/superhero. There are also more subtle matters of technique, with Hendricks’s use of aluminum leaf on canvas giving it a silvery, reflective surface that was also there in Bowling’s use of gold as a generative synecdoche and optical apparatus in Mirror.

In 2017, Okwui Enwezor and Anna Schneider curated Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi, at Haus der Kunst in Munich, a retrospective of the artist spanning five decades.13 Enlarging our sense of the relevant historical and geographical contexts in play for Bowling, the exhibition centrally featured the immense Map Paintings (1967-1971) that Bowling produced after his move to the States. Mappa Mundi took a lighter touch perhaps than Soul of a Nation when broaching connections to black identity and political struggle in the United States, more alluding than connecting to this history (Enwezor writes of “the gritty, unforgiving urban miscellany of New York, where he [Bowling] honed his artistic voice”14). Indeed the exhibition broke from many conventions, not least the conservative art historical one of addressing a story of modern art as if it could be credibly contained within any single national location. In many ways it enlarged on the analytic of “fault lines” associated with the Africa Pavilion curated by Gilane Tawadros at the Venice Biennale of 2003, to which Enwezor contributed an essay alongside another one of Kobena Mercer’s superb disquisitions on Bowling.15

Enwezor was the pass-master of holding a mirror to that very convention of nation-based narration. Modern and contemporary art, rather than being centered on a single nation-space, may offer the grounds for the radical dissolution of nation narratives—and Bowling may be seen alongside many other examples given by artists themselves on their boundary-busting journeys and cosmopolitan objectives. I am sure we would all pay tribute to that exhibition and pay our respects to the late Enwezor. His Frank Bowling exhibition stood among the great many gifts to culture that Enwezor made, with an added poignancy for having appeared during the later phases of the curator’s chronic illness.

Installation view, Frank Bowling at Tate Britain (May 31 – August 26, 2019). Tate Photography, Matt Greenwood.

The current exhibition at Tate Britain takes up the baton from Mappa Mundi (a smooth relay perhaps given that there is an essay in the Munich catalogue by Tate Britain curator Zoe Whitley). It has the distinction of bringing Bowling to the doorstep of audiences here in Britain, where he worked for much of his life. The show and its accompanying book publication take stock of the excellent, supportive activity conducted with and around Bowling over recent decades. In addition to the names I have mentioned, there is the documentary, curatorial, and archival work of Rose Jones, Spencer Richards and Rachel Scott, for example, along with the writings of Eddie Chambers, Kobena Mercer, Mel Gooding, Rasheed Araeen, Dorothy Price/Rowe, Courtney J. Martin, Matthew Collings, Richard Cork, Giulia Smith, and many others, including myself. As such, this is a more multivocal presentation of the artist, resting on a wealth of co-produced knowledge. At the same time, one cannot ignore the irony of a historical parallel. Just as Britain’s belatedness and its Atlantic provincialism vis-à-vis American modernism were repackaged as cultural assets during the moment of Pop, much of the media interest in this current exhibition has rather sanctimoniously dressed up and ameliorated the blindingly obviously belated recognition of Bowling by the Tate. In places it has striven to bill Bowling himself as some sort of exotic new discovery, with the virtuous double result of presaging the wholesale reversal of decades of establishment indifference and exclusion that the larger community of black British artists have endured with dignity.

As if to preempt such responses, and to unshackle Bowling’s art from the limited national imaginaries that have beset his reception in Britain and in America, Tate Britain is currently addressing the very matter of mapping that has for so long concerned the artist himself, by demonstrating conclusively why no single national geography is adequate for understanding this art, no nation space large enough to encompass his life and work. It underscores the interplay of the several varieties of provincialism that I have explored briefly, holding on to a cultural history that breaks decisively from the maps employed in more fuddy-duddy art historical convention and positioning Frank Bowling’s art as the basis for a new, transnational vision of art’s geographies. More than this, the topography and morphology of Bowling’s life and work are revealed as a locus of art history in and of themselves.

How do so many cultural territories converge under Bowling’s gaze and in his experience? How can we convey such breadth, such merged horizons, in a public exhibition? Well, it is a timeworn cliché among cultural critics to describe a distinguished artist such as Bowling as being in a league of his own. But in this case, used advisedly, the metaphor is critically useful. It energizes the association that Elena Crippa has made in the accompanying catalogue between Bowling’s art and what the Caribbean literary giant, Édouard Glissant, calls the “poetics of relation.”16 A league of one’s own is a spatial metaphor: a league is a measure of distance, horizontally of course, but it is also as a measure of depth, such as of water, of the sea. Bowling’s works are the stuff of movement, forged through movement while maintaining depth. They connect so many places and points on a transatlantic and (properly) transnational chart of modern and contemporary art, exposing while closing the Atlantic divide. To borrow and rephrase from Glissant: having formed at locations of culture upon many continents, arranged as if in an archipelago, islands where the possibilities of painting are never ending, Bowling’s art and life bear out a certain poetics of relation—not so much across the sea but more properly submarine.   

Endnotes

  1. The following text, lightly edited, was presented by invitation on June 1, 2019, at My Guyana to Great Thames: Frank Bowling in Context, an international symposium at Tate Britain (London, UK) on the occasion of the exhibition Frank Bowling (Tate Britain, May 31 to August 26, 2019).
  2. See Leon Wainwright, Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).
  3. Bowling, interview with the author, April 28, 2006.
  4. A full account is given in my article, “Frank Bowling and the Appetite for British Pop,” Third Text 91 (2008): 195-208.
  5. Bowling, interview with the author, April 28, 2006.
  6. Arguably this is the sort of politics that would only begin to emerge in the decade of the 1970s in Britain, carried forward by those Australian writers and curators, notably Terry Smith, who wrote frequently on what he identified as the “provincialism bind”—“an attitudinal response of labyrinthine complexity to an externally-determined hierarchy of cultural values” (see Smith, “American painting and British painting: Some issues,” Studio International 188:972 [1974], 218). See also Smith, “The provincialism problem”; Ian Burn, “Provincialism,” Art Dialogue 1 (October 1973): 3-11; Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether and Ann Stephen, “The provincialism debates,” in The Necessity of Australian Art (Sydney: Power Institute, University of Sydney, 1988).
  7. Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (London: Tate Publishing, 2017), 177-178.
  8. Godfrey has in mind perhaps Melvin Edwards’s work, Curtain (for William and Peter), 1969. Barbed wire and chain, dimensions variable.
  9. Godfrey and Whitley, Soul of a Nation, 178. Godfrey’s essay is accompanied by a selection of paintings from the Joe Overstreet exhibition in Houston, Texas, 1972, including: Mandala, 1970; We Came from There to Get Here, 1970; and For Happiness, 1970. The Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.
  10. This is with reference to Al Loving’s Self-Portrait #23 (1973).
  11. Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969, Oil paint, acrylic paint and aluminium leaf on canvas, 151.1 x 121.9 cm.
  12. Whitley and Godfrey, Soul of a Nation, 194.
  13. The exhibition ran in Munich from June 23, 2017, to January 7, 2018, before touring to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates.
  14. https://hausderkunst.de/en/exhibitions/frank-bowling-mappa-mundi-1
  15. Gilane Tawadros and Sarah Campbell, eds., Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 2003).
  16. Elena Crippa, “Frank Bowling: The Possibilities of Paint are Never-Ending,” in Crippa, ed., Frank Bowling (London: Tate Publishing, 2019), 16.